Category Archives: Old Testament

More synchronicity: Rivers of Babylon

Just after posting the previous post, I had a bit of free time, so I played the musical free-association game: I choose a song to start with and play it, and when each song ends, I play whatever comes to mind next — which will generally be related in some way. Here’s what I played this time:

  • Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Walk Like A Man”
  • They Might Be Giants, “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”
  • The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
  • James Taylor, “Walking Man”
  • Leonard Cohen, “By The Rivers Dark”

After that, the next song that came to mind was Don McLean’s “Babylon” — which, like the Cohen song, is based on Psalm 137. I wasn’t really in the mood for Don McLean, though, so I stopped the association stuff and just put iTunes on random shuffle. The third or fourth song it selected on random shuffle was — wouldn’t you know it? — Don McLean’s “Babylon.”


Less than an hour later, I picked up Krailsheimer’s Pascal again and found the following passage:

The rivers of Babylon flow, and fall, and carry away.

O holy Sion, where everything stands firm and nothing falls!

We must sit by these rivers, not under or in them, but above, not standing upright, but sitting down, so that we remain humble by sitting, and safe by remaining above, but we shall stand upright in the porches of Jerusalem.

Let us see if this pleasure is firm or transitory; if it passes away it is a river of Babylon.

A footnote explains, “This fragment is a paraphrase of a meditation on Ps. CXXVII [sic] by St Augustine.” All this happened just hours after I had written a post which quoted St. Augustine in connection with popular music (facetiously citing “noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger”).

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Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Music, Old Testament

Synchronicity: Elijah, the prophets of Baal, and Pascal

This afternoon I had lunch with the local Mormon missionaries, and we chatted about various things. The discussion turned to some of the more shocking religious practices in Taiwan, and I told them about a ceremony I had witnessed a year or two ago, in which a man had danced around beating and cutting himself with a variety of nasty-looking implements, his goal being to obtain permission from God A to let God B (of whose temple he was a representative) pay a social visit to God A’s temple; some 20 minutes later, by which time the man was completely covered with blood, God A finally relented and granted permission.

I mentioned that this had reminded me of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (The prophets, as you will recall, “cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them,” hoping thereby to get Baal’s attention.) The elders didn’t seem to know that story very well, so I told it to them in some detail.

Later in our conversation, they asked what I was doing these days in terms of religion, and I told them that at the moment my religious activity was pretty much limited to reading and pondering a large number of religious books. I showed them the one I was working on at the moment — Krailsheimer’s translation of Pascal’s Pensées — and we discussed Pascal and his ideas a bit.


After we’d finished eating, the elders went back to proselyting, and I went back to the college. I still had half an hour or so before my next class, so I pulled out the aforementioned Pascal book; I was on page 281. After a few minutes of reading, I came to page 287 — and the first line on the page read simply: “I Kings XVIII: Elijah with the prophets of Baal.”

So just minutes after discussing both the Baal story and the Pascal book, I find a reference to the Baal story in the Pascal book. (I need scarcely mention that I ordinarily go for years at a stretch without speaking, reading, or thinking about the prophets of Baal.)


Update: More synchronicity! Immediately after posting this, I went to Bruce Charlton’s blog and found he had posted an excerpt from a Blake Ostler interview — and essentially everything Ostler says in that excerpt was also said in the course of my conversation with the elders.


Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Old Testament, Taiwan

A very concise 23rd Psalm

The Lord my shepherd is, and I
Shall nothing want. He makes me lie
In pastures green. Along the shores
Of waters still he leads, restores
My soul. In righteous paths I go,
There led for his name’s sake. Although
I walk the vale of deathly shade,
Of evil I’ll not be afraid,
For thou art there. For comfort to
Thy rod and staff I look. In view
Of all my foes thou settest up
My board, anoint’st my head. My cup
Runs over. Surely, to the end
Thy good and mercy shall attend
Me all my days until I die.
Then in God’s house I’ll dwell for aye.

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Filed under Old Testament, Poetry, Translation

The Son of righteousness

The King James Version of the fourth chapter of Malachi begins with these two verses:

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

The fact that the word Sun is capitalized, even in modern editions of the KJV, suggests that some editor interpreted it as a reference to God or Christ. (Sunne is usually but not always capitalized throughout the original 1611 edition; modern editions do not capitalize sun except in this verse.) And indeed if you were to hear this passage read aloud it would be natural to misinterpret Sun as Son. Google Ngrams shows that, in literary use generally, people generally capitalize both nouns — Sun of Righteousness — implying that, although they may use the correct vowel in Sun, they are nevertheless interpreting the Sun as the Son and Righteousness as a name of the Father. And the solecism (or perhaps, in some cases, intentional wordplay) Son of righteousness, while much less frequent than the correct version, is far from rare.

But it is of course only in English that such confusion or wordplay comes naturally, since sun and son are not homophones in other languages. It might just pass muster as a pun in certain other Germanic languages (e.g. zon/zoon in Dutch), but certainly not in Malachi’s original Hebrew, where the word shemesh carries not the faintest echo of ben. In context, Malachi is clearly making no anachronistic allusion to the Son of God’s arising from the tomb, but is rather playing on the double nature of the sun’s heat. The Lord maketh his sun of righteousness to rise on the evil and the good — but the evil will experience it as a consuming fire; the good, as lifegiving warmth. (William Law makes this point eloquently, though without reference to Malachi, in his Spirit of Love.)

For us modern (post 17th-century) readers of the KJV, another factor encouraging the misinterpretation of Malachi is the use of the possessive determiner his, which seems more appropriately applied to a masculine son than to the inanimate sun. The word its did not make its literary début until several decades after the publication of the KJV — it appears once in modern editions (Leviticus 25:5) but not at all in the 1611 original — so his had to do double duty as the possessive determiner corresponding to both he and it. See for example Genesis 3:15 — “it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” — where it is clear that his is to it as thy is to thou. (Here, too, this archaic use of his may have influenced later readers to interpret the “seed” as a specific person, Christ, rather than in a more general sense.) However, Jacobean writers still felt a little uncomfortable with this neuter use of his, just as we feel vaguely uncomfortable writing “the car whose window is broken,” and they tended to avoid it. The KJV translators did this either by using such alternative locutions as thereof and of it, or — in the case of the sun — by poetically masculinizing a neuter noun. The KJV refers to the sun as it four times (when there is no accompanying possessive) and as he only twice (and only in sentences with his).


The Book of Mormon — purportedly written by the Nephites, American descendants of Hebrews who left the Old World circa 600 BC — quotes the third and fourth chapters of Malachi in their entirety, as chapters 24 and 25 of Third Nephi.

At first blush, this seems like a glaring anachronism, since Malachi prophesied circa 420 BC, long after Nephi and his family had left Jerusalem, and the Nephites should therefore have had no knowledge of his writings. The Book of Mormon has an explanation, though. The book of 3 Nephi deals with the visit of Jesus Christ to the Nephites following his resurrection, and in chapters 24 and 25, Christ — who did know the writings of Malachi — dictates them to the Nephites and “commanded them that they should write the words which the Father had given unto Malachi, which he should tell unto them” (3 Ne. 24:1). After the dictation — which for some reason includes only the second half of the Book of Malachi — is complete, Christ explains “These scriptures, which ye had not with you, the Father commanded that I should give unto you; for it was wisdom in him that they should be given unto future generations” (3 Ne. 26:2).

So quoting Malachi was not a mere ignorant blunder on Joseph Smith’s part. Whoever wrote the Book of Mormon clearly understood that the Nephites would not have had access to the Book of Malachi by any normal means and provided an explanation of how they could nevertheless know some of its contents.

There is still a blunder, though. In dictating Malachi 3-4 to the Nephites, when Christ comes to the passage discussed above, he says — you guessed it — “the Son of righteousness.” As discussed above, this is an error that would never have been made by Christ himself, nor by the Nephites who recorded his words, but only by an English speaker who knew the KJV but was not terribly literate. Joseph Smith fits the bill.

But then so do Joseph Smith’s scribes. After all, Smith didn’t actually write his English “translation” of the Book of Mormon but dictated it to an amanuensis — so it’s entirely possible that he translated the Nephites’ version of Christ’s dictation of Malachi correctly — “Sun of righteousness” — but that his scribe, misled by homophony, wrote down the wrong word, and that the error has been perpetuated in all subsequent editions of the book.


Unfortunately, Joseph Smith doesn’t get off the hook so easily, because 3 Nephi  is not the only place where Malachi is quoted in the Book of Mormon. Material from Malachi also appears in 1 Nephi 22, and in 2 Nephi 25-26. These passages are far more problematic because they were supposedly written by Nephi, the son of Lehi, one of the original group that left Jerusalem in 600 BC and migrated to America. That is, they were written long before Christ appeared and dictated the words of Malachi — and Christ explicitly says in 3 Nephi that the Nephites had not had the Book of Malachi prior to his dictation. So how does the first Nephi come to be quoting from it?

Well, one possible explanation is that Nephi didn’t quote Malachi. After all, the entire Book of Mormon passed through the hands of Mormon and Moroni, who lived after Christ’s visit and thus had access to Malachi 3-4, so it is conceivable that the Malachi quotes represent later interpolations, not present in the original writings of Nephi. Sure enough, all the anachronistic Malachi quotations come from Malachi 4:1-2 — that is, from verses which were included in Christ’s partial dictation of the book — so Mormon and others would have had access to them. On the other hand, 1 and 2 Nephi come from the Small Plates of Nephi, and it is generally accepted that Mormon edited and abridged only the Large Plates, later appending the Small Plates complete and unmodified. Even if Mormon himself didn’t interpolate the Malachi quotes, though, someone else could have. Centuries passed between the revelation of Malachi to the Nephites and the final compilation of the Book of Mormon.

Another possibility is that the passages in question were written by Nephi, but that he was not quoting Malachi — that Malachi 4:1-2 is the work of some pre-exilic prophet whose work is now lost, and who was quoted by both Nephi and Malachi. In 1 Ne. 22, Nephi says “thus saith the prophet” (v. 15) and “this is according to the words of the prophet” (v. 23) when he quotes the Malachi material but does not mention Malachi by name. It’s just possible that he had some other prophet in mind, one whose writings survive only as unattributed quotations in the Book of Malachi.

Unfortunately, all these possible explanations are undermined by what we find in 2 Nephi 26:4-9, quoted below. The passages in bold show the clear influence of Malachi 4:1-2.

Wherefore, all those who are proud, and that do wickedly, the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, for they shall be as stubble. And they that kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up, saith the Lord of Hosts; and mountains shall cover them, and whirlwinds shall carry them away, and buildings shall fall upon them and crush them to pieces and grind them to powder. And they shall be visited with thunderings, and lightnings, and earthquakes, and all manner of destructions, for the fire of the anger of the Lord shall be kindled against them, and they shall be as stubble, and the day that cometh shall consume them, saith the Lord of Hosts. O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just. But behold, the righteous that hearken unto the words of the prophets, and destroy them not, but look forward unto Christ with steadfastness for the signs which are given, notwithstanding all persecution—behold, they are they which shall not perish. But the Son of Righteousness shall appear unto them; and he shall heal them, and they shall have peace with him, until three generations shall have passed away, and many of the fourth generation shall have passed away in righteousness.

Yes, it’s the Son-with-an-o of Righteousness again, and this time the variant can’t easily be dismissed as an error on the part of Joseph Smith’s scribe. The context (i.e., coming right after two fairly direct quotations from Malachi 4:1) leaves little room for doubt that Malachi is being alluded to — but this time it is not a direct quote, and the rephrasing makes it clear that the Son (not the sun) is intended. This Son does not arise but appears, and “he shall heal them, and they shall have peace with him” is more unambiguously masculine than “with healing in his [its] wings.” Future editions of the Book of Mormon could easily correct 3 Nephi’s Son to Sun, but it wouldn’t be possible in 2 Nephi.

(In a somewhat parallel case, the original 1830 Book of Mormon frequently refers to the “straight and narrow” path — a very common solecism, reading straight for the KJV’s homophonous, but not synonymous, strait. More recent editions have quietly corrected all of these but one: 2 Ne. 9:41 — “Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him,” where the rephrasing makes it clear that straight means “straight,” not “strait.” Again, a mistake only an English speaker would make. This one is not as compelling as the Malachi case, though, since the context doesn’t make it so clear that it is intended as a biblical quotation.)


Filed under Book of Mormon, Old Testament

Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”


Filed under Ethics, Old Testament, Translation

Jack Miles’s biography of God

I recently read Jack Miles’s God: A Biography, which, by a strange twist of serendipity, I found on sale for a dollar at a restaurant in Taiwan. The premise of the book is that the Old Testament — or, rather, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, which consists of the same books in a different order — can be read as a single literary work with a single protagonist (God), and that we can trace his development as a character by reading through the books of the Bible in order (the Jewish order) from Genesis to Chronicles.

While Miles’s book is definitely worth reading for its astute commentary on many of the individual books of the Bible, this underlying idea of reading the Tanakh as if it were a single book rather than an anthology is a dubious one, somewhat like basing an interpretation of Shakespeare on the order in which his writings appear in a particular edition (and not necessarily the most popular one) of his collected works. Mine has all the comedies first, followed by the histories, the tragedies, and the poems, but to analyze this “Book of Shakespeare” as a whole — noting how it opens on an optimistic note with “Heigh, my hearts; cheerly cheerly, my hearts” and then grows progressively darker and darker, culminating in the murder of Desdemona, after which a poetic dénouement leads the reader gently but inexorably to the somber closing line, “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” — would be an exercise in pointlessness. Shakespeare didn’t write his works to be read that way, most people don’t read them that way, and the bare fact that they can be read that way, resulting in a particular aesthetic effect, is irrelevant to Shakespeare criticism.

The books of the Tanakh, much like the plays of Shakespeare, are divided into three groups which are defined thematically rather than chronologically: the Torah first, then the Prophets, and finally miscellaneous Writings. Since what distinguishes a prophet from a mere writer is the direct nature of the former’s interaction with the Lord God, it is hardly surprising that when the Tanakh is read in order, God seems to become progressively less and less involved in human affairs. This gradual disappearance of God, which Miles makes so much of, is not unlike the gradual darkening of mood in the Book of Shakespeare; it may be something more than an artifact of a thematically organized anthology, but Miles offers no evidence that it is.

Glancing over the Dating the Bible article on Wikipedia, you can see that, yes, most of the Writings are judged to have been composed later than most of the Prophets (though much of the Torah is quite late), so going through the books of the Tanakh in order might be broadly defensible if Miles were writing a history of Jewish religion or of the idea of God — but he’s not. He’s writing the life story of God the literary character as told in the Bible, and for that purpose what matters is not when the books were written or in what order they appear in the anthology, but when each event occurs in the story. In the life story of the Shakespeare character Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the events of 2 Henry IV and Henry V come before those of the Henry VI plays, even though the latter plays were written earlier. A biography of Ulysses would have to treat his encounter with the Cyclops in Book IX of the Odyssey as coming before his departure from Ogygia in Book V. In the same way, Ecclesiastes may come near the end of the Tanakh, and it may have been written later than the prophetic books, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the story it is supposed to be the words of King Solomon. The Book of Job may have been written as late as the 5th century BC, but there is every indication that the story of Job is set in the time of the pre-Mosaic patriarchs. With perhaps one exception, Miles completely ignores this internal chronology and assumes that later on the page means later in the story.

That one exception is made in order to save Miles’s interpretation of the Book of Job and the pivotal role he sees it as playing in the Tanakh.

A view common to nearly all commentators on the Book of Job is that, one way or another, the Lord has reduced Job to virtual silence. Unnoticed is the fact that from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again. His speech from the whirlwind is, in effect, his last will and testament. Job has reduced the Lord to silence. The books of Chronicles will repeat speeches the Lord made earlier . . . But he will never speak again. (p.329)

It’s hard to see this as anything other than special pleading. The Lord does speak in the book of Chronicles (which is one book in the Tanakh, not two as in the LXX and Old Testament), and Chronicles is later than Job in every sense: it comes after it in the Tanakh, it was written later, and the events it narrates come later in the story. The fact that Chronicles is primarily a rehash of material from the books of Samuel and Kings doesn’t really change any of that. One might with as much justice say that Jesus never speaks in the Gospel of Luke, since that gospel mostly just repeats what he said “earlier” in Matthew and Mark.


Though I can’t agree with Miles on the role of Book of Job within the Bible, I found his analysis of the book itself to be very enlightening. He makes a compelling case that most translations, by getting just a few verses wrong, distort the whole meaning of the book.

Some of this I already knew about. The famous KJV line, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15), for example, is more accurately translated as “He will slay me? For that I hope” (Walter Kaufmann trans.) or “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope” (RSV) — a pretty important difference!

Miles mentions 13:15 in passing but focuses most of his analysis on chapter 42, in which (as the book is usually interpreted) Job recants and repents. His reading of 42:3, where Job quotes and reacts to the Lord’s first words from the whirlwind (from 38:2), is interesting. The KJV reads, “Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not,” but Miles offers the following interpretation:

“Do you say, ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge’? Well, then, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.” Job may be saying that, having now heard the Lord’s overpowering speech, he knows that he was mistaken in his own speeches. He may also be saying that, having now heard the Lord’s bombastic speech, he concludes that he spoke a truth beyond what he could have guessed at the time. (pp. 320-21)

In other words, the Lord’s speech from the whirlwind may have been a failure, may not have impressed Job at all.

A few verses later, the KJV has Job saying, “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6), but Miles suggests the alternative translation, “I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.” The argument here is that the words “myself” and “in” do not occur in the original Hebrew; a literal reading would be “I abhor and repent dust and ashes” — or, better, since the verb translated “repent” can mean either to regret an action or to feel sorry for a person, “I feel loathing and sorrow for dust and ashes.” The phrase “dust and ashes” could be a metonym for repentance, giving the meaning, “I repent of having repented,” or, in the reading Miles prefers, Job could be using “dust and ashes” in the same sense that Abraham uses it in Genesis 18:27 (“I have taken upon me to speak to the Lord, who am but dust and ashes”), to mean mere mortals. In that case, Job would be saying that he feels sorry for mankind now that he has seen the Lord in his true character. In neither reading is Job recanting or repenting; quite the opposite.


Equally intriguing is Miles’s take on Jacob’s wrestling with the angel — or whoever it was he wrestled with. The narrative refers to the wrestler only as “a man,” but after the encounter Jacob says that he has seen God face to face. It would be absurd to think that Jacob had beat the Lord God himself in a wrestling match, which I suppose is why tradition has identified the “man” as a mere angel instead — not that a mortal besting an angel at wrestling makes all that much more sense. And why would God or an angel come attack Jacob in the night in the first place? Miles’s proposed solution to this mystery had never crossed my mind before and left me thinking (to quote Huxley’s reaction to Darwin’s theory) “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

Esau is attempting to decline Jacob’s aggressively munificent gifts. Jacob insists: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” Speaking of the “man” with whom he wrestled all night, Jacob equates his face with God’s face, saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (32:31). But speaking here, he equates Esau’s face with God’s face. Was Jacob’s nocturnal visitor Esau himself, come to kill his brother as, years earlier, he had vowed to do (27:41)? Jacob, having fought his attacker to a draw, unexpectedly demanded of him his blessing. And from whom, more appropriately than from Esau, does Jacob have reason to wrestle for a blessing? In seeking Esau’s blessing, Jacob would be seeking his long-estranged brother’s acquiescence in the earlier loss of their father’s blessing. Finally, is Jacob, as he greets Esau on the morrow, making a daring allusion to their night of struggle, one that Esau may hear and silently recognize? (p. 74)


Finally, I’m sorry to say I have to add Miles to the list of people who come frustratingly close to noticing, but do not notice, the firmament thing. Commenting on Genesis 1, Miles writes:

And God does not say of [man] directly, as he says directly of all his other creations [sic!], “And God saw that they were good.” The final judgment . . . is rendered only on creation as a whole: “God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” “Very,” for the first and only time here, but only after a faintly troubling elision where mankind is concerned. (p. 29)

Man is not the only creation which God does not directly say is good. The other — as I seem to be saying rather often these days — is the firmament. And the firmament is the more significant elision, since it is created on the second day but not pronounced good even by inclusion until the sixth. Man, on the other hand, is God’s last creation, and immediately after creating them he sees that the whole creation is good. Man, unlike the firmament, doesn’t have to wait several days to become good. What is it that keeps even the most meticulous readers of Genesis 1 from noticing this?


Filed under Old Testament

Was the firmament good after all?

Much of the 13th and final book of St Augustine’s Confessions is given over to a very meticulous — even tedious in places — analysis of the first chapter of Genesis, combing over every word and turn of phrase again and again, interpreting and reinterpreting it as if determined to winkle out every last molecule of meaning.

As I was reading this, I was naturally curious to see whether Augustine would pick up on the oddity in Genesis 1 which I had recently noticed and commented on —  namely, that God created the firmament on the second day but neglected to pronounce it good until the sixth. But instead I was startled to read this:

Of the several kinds of Thy works, when Thou hadst said “let them be,” and they were, Thou sawest each that it was good. Seven times have I counted it to be written, that Thou sawest that that which Thou madest was good: and this is the eighth, that Thou sawest every thing that Thou hadst made, and, behold, it was not only good, but also very good, as being now altogether.

Apparently the puzzle I had spent so much time pondering didn’t even exist in Augustine’s Bible! Where my King James clearly has only seven instances of God pronouncing his creation good, it appears that the version St Augustine was using had eight — with the additional “it was good” presumably being applied to the firmament.

I tried looking up Genesis 1 in the Vulgate, which is figured is what Augustine would have been reading, but it turns out to be the same as our English Bibles, with God saying “it was good” only seven times and neglecting the firmament. Then, figuring that Augustine may instead have been reading Vetus Latina versions translated from the Septuagint, I looked that up and, sure enough, the Septuagint Genesis 1 inserts an extra “and God saw that it was good,” applied to the firmament, into the eighth verse.

I don’t really know what to conclude from this. I suppose it’s possible that a line which was accidentally lost in the Masoretic text has been preserved in the LXX — but it seems equally probable that, the original text being so decidedly odd on this point, the LXX translators fudged it a bit and inserted a line which obviously seemed to belong.

At any rate, it’s too bad St Augustine didn’t have a Vulgate handy when he wrote his Confessions. I’m sure he would have noticed the firmament discrepancy and come up with an ingenious explanation for it.

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Filed under Old Testament, Translation